How Restoring Oysters Can Make New York Harbor ‘the Thriving Ecosystem It Once Was’

Ambitious project is using shellfish to improve the environment for wildlife and city residents

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How Restoring Oysters Can Make New York Harbor ‘the Thriving Ecosystem It Once Was’
Pete Malinowski
Pete Malinowski, executive director of Billion Oyster Project, is working to restore oysters to New York Harbor.
Roy Ritchie

Billion Oyster Project is a New York-based nonprofit organization with a goal of restoring a billion oysters to New York Harbor by 2035. Pew is partnering with the project to help improve water quality and habitat in New York and create a statewide oyster management and recovery plan. Billion Oyster Project Executive Director Pete Malinowski and Director of Restoration Katie Mosher spoke with Pew recently about the project, the importance of oysters to the city, and how habitat restoration can build community.  

See more photos of the Billion Oyster Project at the bottom of the page.

Q: Why choose New York Harbor for a big oyster restoration effort?

Malinowski: I grew up on an oyster farm in Fishers Island, New York, working on the farm after school and during the summer. I moved to New York City in 2007 and met Murray Fisher, founder of the New York Harbor School. At that time, the school was involved in beach cleanups, monitoring water quality, and tracking oyster populations, and we wondered if it would be possible to restore oysters to the harbor. Shortly after, we started growing oysters on a larger scale on Governors Island. It was exciting to think about the potential of significantly changing how New York Harbor looked, about making it a more natural place.

Mosher: Around the time Pete and Murray met, educators and others began to realize that the harbor habitat was being ignored. The idea of restoring oysters generated excitement and enthusiasm and brought New York communities together. Interest was blossoming.

Q: Describe a typical day in restoration for Billion Oyster Project.

Mosher: We just spent several days on the water in Jamaica Bay for our final check on the adult oysters we installed four years ago, creating over an acre of habitat. Fish, crabs, and several other filter-feeding species are now using the reef, and some of the oysters are bigger than the calipers we use to measure them! Students and alumni at the New York Harbor School drove the boats, and summer interns, professional divers, and budding young scientists pitched in to collect oysters from the reef and monitor the beds. We do this work with the New York Department of Environmental Protection, Hudson River Foundation, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and HDR Inc. They were long days, and it’s hot out there in the middle of summer, but it was a lot of fun.

Katie Mosher, director of restoration for Billion Oyster Project, opens an oyster cage in the water to check growth near Brooklyn.
Katie Orlinsky for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Q: What has surprised you in your efforts to restore oysters in New York Harbor?

Malinowski: One big surprise was what happened with a large oyster nursery we installed in Brooklyn Navy Yard, where a large combined sewer overflow makes water quality particularly bad. The idea was if they could survive here, they could survive in most of the harbor. The first year it looked like it wasn’t going to work: They were covered in tunicates—a filter-feeding soft animal—and they didn’t grow particularly well. But they were still alive, and we were hoping the first year wasn’t what was to come. A year later, the oysters were doing much better and were surrounded by polychaete worms, anemones, barnacles, mussels, and, near the cages, blue crabs and small black fish. It was a lightbulb moment: If you build it, they will come. Just give it time. And the harbor is getting dramatically cleaner compared to 30, 40, 50 years ago.

Mosher: It’s been a real surprise to me, as someone doing this for more than 10 years, to see how the human community and its ability to access New York Harbor has changed over time. When we first started, there were not a lot of places where people could even touch the water. It’s actually changing—it’s a real shift.

Q: What are the most promising opportunities for Billion Oyster Project right now?

Malinowski: The most promising opportunity is shifting the conversation—and the policies—around oyster restoration to work at the scale necessary to restore New York Harbor. We’ve been chugging away on a lot of small- to medium-scale projects for a long time, but we need larger-scale projects. Some regulators still view restoring oysters in polluted water as a public health risk, which is backwards and prevents us from improving the environment. There has to be a way to make it safe for humans and native wild animals to live together.

Mosher: Oyster larvae need something hard to settle on; they die if they settle into soft sediment. One of the reasons oysters have not recovered on their own in New York Harbor is because shells were removed and not returned. So, in addition to getting shell back in the water, another opportunity in this urbanized part of the estuary is working with partners, including engineers and landscape architects, to think about ways to incorporate oysters or reef habitat as they design and construct at the edge of the water.

Q: What does success look like for Billion Oyster Project?

Malinowski: Success looks like a city turned back into a thriving natural resource, in which New Yorkers go about their daily lives knowing they live in and around one of the great natural places in the world: New York Harbor. It’s returning actual abundance and diversity to the harbor and to people’s lives so they’re walking up from the subway talking about the egrets they saw on the way to work. It’s the 1.1 million public school students in New York City having a meaningful experience in the environment where they live.

Mosher: In the harbor, where the water is too polluted for people to eat the oysters, in part because there aren’t enough oysters in the water to clean it, success would be a team of people from different backgrounds—the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Army Corps of Engineers, other restoration participants, scientists, shellfish growers, and regulators—working on this problem together. We need to collaborate to develop best practices and targets for installing large-scale oyster reefs. If we all make it a priority to restore oyster reef habitat that is effectively protected from harvest, New York Harbor can become the thriving ecosystem it once was.

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